For many of us, the first steps on our family history journey are on a road made up of census, birth, marriage and death records. When you’re just starting out with family history work, this is often all that’s needed to start capturing a smattering of loose dates and names (editor’s note: check out this post on getting started with sourcing!).
But as you take your research further, there are treasure troves of information to be found in less, ahem, “sexy” records. Enter wills and probates, an oft neglected source of fascinating information and rich personal details.
First, a quick primer:
Most of us are probably somewhat familiar with a will. Thanks, Dateline! Wills and trusts are legal documents that dictate how a person’s property and/or assets be distributed after his or her death.
Probate, or estate records, are court records after someone’s death which direct the legal distribution of the estate, payment of any debts, and care of dependents. The word probate comes from the Latin word meaning “to prove.” Wills are just one of many kinds of the documents included in probate records.
Now, not everyone in the US wrote a will. In fact, many of us still don’t have a will! From a historical perspective, it’s estimated that approximately 10 percent of adult males with property made wills before 1900. Before 1900, about 25 percent of estates went through probate even if no will had been written.
You might be thinking, well, a one-in-ten chance is not exactly great odds. Keep in mind, however, that this percentage is higher for people who lived in rural areas due to land ownership. So if your ancestor owned land, it’s possible to search probate records to determine how and to whom their land was distributed upon their death. You may also want to investigate probate records for your ancestor’s relatives because even if they didn’t have a record, they have been mentioned or named in someone else’s.
Ok, so where can I locate probate records?
There are generally two main avenues:
- Ancestry.com has a massive collection of online probate records for selected counties. On the U.S Wills and Probate page, head to the drop-down menu of individual state collections.
- Check out the probate listings at FamilySearch.
- Google the State Archives for the location in which your ancestor lived. Some archives have digitized their records and put them online. You may also want search for probate records of the county as well.
- USGenWeb.org lists various records types for counties across the US. Also check the USGenWeb Archives at usgwarchives.net.
2. County Courthouses
Probate was administered at the county level, so if you haven’t found what you’re looking for online, you should consider making a stop at the county courthouse where the estate was settled. Here you should be able to find the original probate book and probate packets, unless the records have been moved to the state archives or another repository.
Okay, so hopefully, we’ve hooked you on the power of wills, probates and estate records. They can be incredibly useful tools in better understanding who our ancestors really were, what was important to them, and how they lived and loved.
So, give it a try and let us know how it goes.